By Jamie Combs
You can’t print books on flypaper, but Trey Williams’ “Skeeter” should keep your eyes glued to each page.
“Skeeter: Harley Swift’s Buzzer-Beating, Trash-Talking March through Madness” is a 238-page, soft-cover edition that chronicles the life and times of the East Tennessee State basketball great who played five seasons in the American Basketball Association.
The book’s author, Williams, is a respected, veteran sportswriter for the Johnson City Press. He recently provided insight as to how the project, which reached the finish line in April, traveled the roadway to reality.
“Skeeter and I had talked two or three times since meeting when he was inducted into the Northeast Tennessee Hall of Fame in 2004,” Williams said. “We really hit it off when I called him to do a story on his election to the Tennessee Hall of Fame in November of 2009. We were on the phone close to two hours, and he talked about everything from Adolph Rupp and Al McGuire to David ‘Big Daddy’ Lattin, George Gervin and coaching for Jerry Falwell at Liberty, which was a new one on me.
“Skeeter was always entertaining, but now he seemed less self-absorbed. He talked more about former teammates and coaches like Don Eddy, Jack Maxey, Glenn Korobov and Clay Estes, and eventually during that two-hour call he told me that he’d been diagnosed with lymphoma that summer and was still facing a lot of chemotherapy. He’d also had two hip replacements, one of which was going to have to be redone — and since has been. The challenges seemed to have enhanced his humility — if ever so slightly — without compromising his will. If anything, the setbacks only bolstered his spirit; he was determined to be in top-notch spirits for his February 2010 Tennessee Hall of Fame induction in Nashville.”
As Swift’s Tennessee HOF induction drew closer, the Kingsport resident and former Elizabethton High basketball coach (1978-79) turned pitchman to Williams.
“Skeeter had a guy in Alexandria (Va.), Harry Covert, writing a book on him at the time, but Skeeter grew impatient with how long it was taking and started selling me on the idea — probably in January 2010,” Williams said. “Harry and Skeeter parted on good terms. In fact, Harry was invaluable on the Liberty portion of the book. I researched it for a couple of weeks and realized there was enough content for a compelling story — one much deeper than drop-kicking a field goal (in high school football), being the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year (1968), beating Dave Cowens-led Florida State to get to the (’68) Sweet 16 and averaging 11.6 points per game during a five-year ABA career.
“Skeeter’s struggle with bipolar disorder was interesting, as were his colorblind ways while coming of age in racially tense times. Preliminary discussions with former ABA players like Hall of Famer George Gervin, Sports Illustrated cover boy Bob Netolicky and Lattin, who’d played on the Texas Western team that beat ‘Rupp’s Runts,’ also assured me Skeeter’s aura had shined well beyond Alexandria and Johnson City.”
After knocking out the final page roughly two weeks ago, this “Skeeter” reader recommends taking a timeout to see what the book has to offer.
Most striking is the openness of Swift, and Williams’ willingness to push across the unvarnished truth.
“Once I was certain Skeeter wouldn’t get cold feet on any information I wanted to put in the book — like some of his misadventures while coaching at Elizabethton — it just became a mountain I wanted to climb,” Williams said.
Overcoming a very difficult upbringing to achieve considerable success, Swift was a star football and basketball player for Alexandria’s George Washington High before hitting it big under Bucs coach Madison Brooks.
Swift poured in 1,367 points during his three seasons (1966-67 through 1968-69) on ETSU’s varsity, making the All-OVC team each year. He then proved himself a worthy professional.
A few coaching stops came about after his playing days were through, with one producing a 61-1 two-year record at Oak Hill Academy.
In addition to the man’s athletic-based endeavors, “Skeeter” captures the personal side of Swift. Here is just some of the content — part of which I’m paraphrasing — that may prove attention-grabbing.
-In the vicinity of the bar and grill that his mother operated was a fire hall in which Swift, ever the mischievous youngster, was known to wreak havoc (mess up the beds, give the firemen “static,” etc.). One day, however, his antics backfired as the crew cornered him behind a pool table, pulled down his pants, honed in on an unmentionable vital organ and painted it red.
“To this day I don’t know how the paint got off,” Swift said. “Turpentine maybe. It may have rubbed the sides of it down some. I don’t know.” (laughter)
-Swift’s high school basketball coach, Estes, had kicked him out of practice one day for his level of foul language. When Estes later informed Swift’s mother of what had transpired, she said, “Well god****t, I’ve taught him better than that!”
-Swift and his fellow ETSU freshmen had shown up the veteran players one day in a scrimmage, causing Brooks to lose his cool. Swift’s response? “I didn’t recruit these losers.”
-Swift wasn’t fond of the meals that athletic trainer Jerry Robertson would select for the Bucs. When a bagged dinner went missing on a road trip, Robertson lined everybody up and said, “Skeeter, did you take that extra bag?”
Swift’s reply was: “Coach, I didn’t take that bag. You know what I think of your damn meals.”
Swift goes on to say: “Well, to this day he still thinks I took that meal. As God as my witness, I didn’t take that bag. I mean if the only way I was going to get to heaven was based on that being the truth, I’d be the first one through the Pearly Gates.”
-Gervin, who played with Swift for San Antonio during the 1973-74 ABA season, supplied an interesting comment about his teammate’s propensity to exercise his vocal cords.
“Skeeter always did have a gift of gab,” he said. “We called it diarrhea of the mouth.”
-A guy whose name you might easily recognize, Bob Haywood, was on Swift’s 1974-75 Rogersville High basketball team.
Destined for a career as a local TV sports anchor, Haywood was a senior for the Warriors — and finished the year as the team’s statistician. Heading into that season, the African-American player surely had some idea of what to expect from his new coach.
“My first encounter with him, I think, was my junior year,” Haywood said. “I was playing baseball and he was the home plate umpire. This was before he became the coach. And he looked at me and yelled over to our bench, (saying) ‘Hey coach, how’d you get Flip Wilson playing for you?’ I may have been in the on-deck circle when he started yelling this Flip Wilson stuff. That was embarrassing. I didn’t even know what he was talking about — I guess because I had long hair and Flip used to do that character where he’d put on a wig back in the day. He even called me ‘Flip’ when he became the basketball coach.”
Wilson, of course, is the late, great comedian who shared Haywood’s race.
-When it came to Swift making sport of others, Haywood wasn’t alone. During his season with Elizabethton, the coach was known to call Bo Taylor “Mr. Magoo” and William Trammell “Sam Drucker.”
Taylor was nicknamed after the famously nearsighted cartoon character. As for Trammell, he somehow reminded Swift of the general store owner on “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres.”
“He said William was ‘a black Sam Drucker,’” said Phil Pierce, himself a ’Betsy player in ’78-79.
Moreover, there’s a reference to the junior high version of Keith Turner, Science Hill’s athletic director who played for Elizabethton and Tennessee Tech, peeking inside a gym door one day and witnessing Swift’s players running suicides in their jockstraps.
According to Williams, two executive movie producers interested in the “Skeeter” story have twice flown to the Tri-Cities to visit with Swift.
“They stumbled across him while doing a five-part documentary — “Supreme Courts” — on the history of Washington, D.C., basketball,” Williams said. “They interviewed the likes of John Thompson, Elgin Baylor, Morgan Wooten, Dave Bing and Earl Lloyd. And after seeing the chubby white guy in the newspaper photo for the 1965 Washington, D.C., All-Metro team — Skeeter will tell you he was the only white guy — they wanted to interview Skeeter.
“When they caught up with him, naturally he sold the guys some books, including the film crew I’m told. The movie executives read it, and have since flown back to Kingsport and are now working on a Powerpoint presentation in Atlanta to lure investors for a dramatic feature on the big screen. It’s still somewhat of a longshot, obviously, but no more than Skeeter overcoming all he did, which included one leg being lower — and some say longer — than the other due to his hip. He was always accused of ‘pimping’ with his awkwardly cool gait, but it was really because of his hips, legs and a foot with a slightly deformed bone.”
Williams estimates he put roughly a thousand hours toward the finished product. Most of that time was devoted to interviews, transcription and sifting through microfilm.
“I guess to sum it up, I’ve gained a friend (Swift) — two friends, including his wife Demetria,” Williams said. “I bet Skeeter and I have talked close to 200 hours when you count all of the three-hour lunches since we finished the book. A three- or four-hour conversation on Thanksgiving morning 2010 was really meaningful. Skeeter delved into his rough childhood, alienating people in high school with his profane attitude, getting caught stealing and sent to a juvenile center for the day due to chronic truancy.”
The foreword for “Skeeter” was written by Science Hill/Brentwood Academy coaching legend George Pitts, who’s now at King College. Swift and Pitts were teammates on ETSU’s freshman squad in 1965-66.
Pitts actually interviewed for the EHS job — he withdrew his name from consideration — that went to Swift. That’s another golden nugget lodged in the pages of Williams’ nice body of work.
To order a copy of the book and/or read the free prologue, go to www.SkeeterSwift.com.
Jamie Combs is the sports editor for the Elizabethton Star. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org